The most interesting things in life usually come unexpectedly. Midway between
Vientiane and Luang Prabang is the little boomtown village of Vang Vieng. I
stopped there only to take a break from the 240 mile mountainous journey up
Route 13. Entering town, you pass over a torn up parking lot; a scruffy German
guy tells me it was an air strip used by the CIA during the "secret war". We're
dropped off in the center of Vang Vieng, a bustling haven for backpacker-types
with guest houses, open-air restaurants and adventure tour shops all in a
four-block radius. The restaurants look more like a hippie’s living room with
raised platforms, tatami mats and over-sized pillows. Instead of menus posted
out front, they have the night’s featured films listed -- it's obvious where the
I find my prison-like room, dump my bag and head for the river. Just a few blocks down the dusty road, I can hear the scuttle of water moving gently over rocks. Having lived on a river as a kid, that sound resonates deeply with me. I followed the sign to the Sunset Bar and stumbled upon a most beautiful sight; down through the mountains came a meandering river flanked by small meadows of overgrown brush and magnificent trees, their arms reaching gracefully to the sky and out over the moody green water. In the background, a stark canvas of karst mountains rose, as if the meadows were falling. Like towering giants, they cast a surreal mist over the valley. I waded out between some Laotian kids who found a few large rocks to jump from. The slimy algae from the smooth stones tickled the bottoms of my feet as the water rushed to confiscate my knees. Long wooden canoes carrying boys with javelin-like fish spears passed languidly by and a few backpackers on inflated inner-tubes drinking Beer Laos floated to shore. I took a walk over the precarious suspension bridge, made up of tightly stitched together branches and a funny toll booth hut set in the middle. On the other side, nestled up against the mountains, was a smattering of 20 huts. Chickens and a few pigs roamed freely, while old women chewed on Betel, slivers of Ca Palm nut and a touch of lime paste, wrapped in a leaf of Betel pepper vine. It releases a mild stimulant and an anesthetic that suppresses your appetite, as well as relieves tooth aches. It also turns your bloody teeth brown -- a look that appears to be desirable. As the sun went down, I returned to the village, strategizing the best way to explore my new surroundings.
Booking tours is a complicated transaction, especially more difficult being just one person. Luckily, there were a few others around that wanted to go kayaking. As we headed for the drop off point, I recalled that while employed in Seattle by the Kimpton Group, the Company Shrink once suggested that I take on a hobby, "get away from the restaurant, it'll do you some good" he said. So, I took a white-water kayaking course – four classes in a pool and three in a lake, before you ever even saw the river. When we arrive at the riverbank, our guides, Yep and TJ, unload the boats. There are four of us: two Irish guys, myself and Brian, and two lovely girls from Sweden, Tess and Jocelyn. We're each handed a paddle and told to line up for a little lesson. TJ, the cockier of the two, begins the class with "okay, put the paddle out in front of you like this". He pauses for a moment, "have you guys used a paddle before?" Brian answers yes and before anyone else could respond, TJ says "good, lets go".
It was dry season and the river was pretty low. We ask Yep what it's like
during the rainy season and he just chuckles. We come around the first bend and
a few water buffalo wallow out to greet us -- they seem to actually swim. It's
quiet, just the sounds of a few paddles stirring the water and the morning birds
discussing what’s on the agenda. A few men dressed in army garb trample out of
the brush to see who's coming down the river. They look happy to discover us, or
maybe it's just the Swedes. Two carry rifles and one a machine gun -- I'm not
sure what you hunt with a machine gun, but they head back into the woods towards
Our first rapids spring upon us. I look for the guides, but they've both gone through. I straightened my boat and dart into the whitewater. As the river punched its way through the valley and along side the sheer mountains, it began to unveil itself. We came upon a family, the mother doing the laundry pounding the clothes against the rocks with fervor. Young girls with wicker baskets strapped to their hips wade in the knee deep water holding small nets; hunched over, they stared intently, then plunged the nets into the river and snagged a few tiny fish. The boys seem to have it the easiest -- they sat just off a rapid a few feet from the shore picking small water bugs from beneath the rocks.
We stopped at a waterhole to jump off a rickety bamboo platform that was much scarier than the actual leap. I found watching Tess jump more enjoyable, anyhow. All around the river the vegetation was lush: bright green algae, water morning glory lilies graced the river, while a myriad of ferns, colorful blossoms and spiny plants lay along the shore. Yul Gibbons would have enjoyed this fertile land.
Further down the river we stop again, this time for lunch and a trek up the mountain to a cave that passes four miles back into the mountain. The ground is treacherous -- wet and slippery, with occasional black holes that disappear into god-knows-where. You move from ballroom-sized spaces, large enough to fit Grammercy Tavern and their wine cellar to attic-sized spaces with just enough head room to stand. I find myself tiptoeing, as if I was in a strangers house and didn't want to wake them. It's so eerie: the cool dim, the pervasive stillness, the smell of wet limestone. The group began to get away so I quicken the pace; it's not something I need to experience on my own. It's an amazing feeling being two miles into the middle of a mountain. I ask Yep what happens when our flashlights stop working, he just shrugs. My Boy Scout mind races for a contingency plan and I decide we could use my camera flash.
Back outside, Brian explains to us the geological significance of what we just witnessed and Yep tells us about the Sleepy Cave a mile away where villages lived while the US showered the area with bombs. It puts a whole other spin on my restaurant idea. As we climb back down the steep mountain, we pass a guy armed with a slingshot and blow pipe; slung over his shoulder are three wild birds, their heads dangling and oozing blood -- they looked like grouse.
As we drifted gently into Vang Vieng, the sun drenched backpackers lay leisurely on the raised platforms that lined the outdoor bars. We say our goodbyes to Yep and TJ and head up the dirt path that leads to the center of town. All along the way are Laotians squatting behind their daily catch -- all things foraged, hunted or fished: small piles of red ants and their eggs, a bloody iguana, (its rear legs and torso already sold). The list goes on: small river bugs called In Nil set in bowls; Kai Nam, the semi-dried river algae that’s eaten over rice; Dok Kay, an extremely bitter yellow wild blossom; Live Toon, plump moles caught in the hollow trees; Si Kahp, a bark that is used to flavor soups and stews. A young girl twists the neck of a squirrel and then submerges it in a pot of boiling water to loosen its skin. With just her fingernails she tears its skin off and places it on the mat in front of her. With the others long gone, perhaps trying to preserve their appetite, I continue on, observing more: a few Pa Lat, tiny river fish that are eaten whole after being grilled or fried; some dried rodents, sandwiched between two sticks and Si Wa, long strands of dried cow intestines.
What I found interesting wasn't the unusual foodstuffs, but the absence of anything else. There weren't any farmers selling bushels of long beans or fish mongers with tanks of catfish. There were herbs and vegetables, but all from someone's backyard. Why else would you sell one bundle of lemongrass or two bunches of pennywort? What ever you gathered, killed or plucked from your garden, you brought and hoped that someone was in need of it. There was as much trading going on as money being exchanged. I passed through a few times to soak it all in. One lady sat proudly behind her freshly made rice noodles, another behind an array of buffalo products: pickled tendons, hoofs cut off at the ankle and sheets of dried meat. The lack of refrigeration has them creatively fermenting, drying and preserving all sorts of things. So much of the character of the cuisine comes from the layering of flavors brought on by these methods.
I guess the idea of catching your meal each day is one that most of us just romanticize about. I think there are some dude ranches that can help you live that experience, if you find it necessary. I'm happy going to the farmers market in Brooklyn, Murry's in the village and Russ in Daughter's on the Lower Eastside. As a cook, though, I do find it fascinating how this process defines their cuisine and that they have a cuisine at all. Let's face it, the English have had a well-stocked refrigerator for a long time and they’re just now figuring out how to cook. The techniques, balance of flavors and textures and incredible knowledge of edible plants and their medicinal properties is really remarkable. The modern-day chef should take a look at this place -- just the multitude of dishes that are created out of a minimal amount of ingredients. It may stop us from always blaming the purveyors for our lack of imagination. Well, nix that idea, that's one of the best parts of the job.Posted by runawaychef at May 2, 2004 12:09 AM